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On the Scene at the BAFTAs, No Longer the ‘Pale, Male, and Stale’ Event It Used to Be

The BAFTAs thread the needle perfectly: to neither seem trivial nor self-important.

Ariana Debose holds her Supporting Actress award for her role in the film 'West Side Story' at the 75th British Academy Film Awards, BAFTA's, in London Sunday, March 13, 2022. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Ariana DeBose with her BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress Sunday.

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

It’s not easy, currently, for a film award ceremony to seem like anything other than a trivial waste of time — and it’s especially difficult for the BAFTAs, which can seem pretty trivial at the best of times. Britain’s film awards are always wrestling with one identity crisis or another. Are they their own thing, or a preview of the Oscars? Should they concentrate on celebrating homegrown talent, much as the Cesars do in France, or should they try to lure some Hollywood A-listers to rainy London?

This identity crisis promised to be more extreme than ever this year, because how could the producers get the tone right when every news report in the country is about the horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? As the celebs breezed up the red carpet to the Royal Albert Hall in shiny, skimpy dresses, and complained about how cold it was, the question in the chilly air was whether the event should have gone ahead at all.

Strangely enough, though, the BAFTAs were less embarrassing than usual. The ceremony even came to be touching. Krishnendu Majumdar, the BAFTA Chair, started the evening with a well-judged “message of support for the people of Ukraine”, and was applauded for his comments on the Academy’s recent efforts to be more inclusive. After that, the 60th anniversary of the James Bond franchise was marked by Dame Shirley Bassey, in a spangly, white, art deco dress, belting out “Diamonds Are Forever” with a twinkle in her eye. Really, it’s hard to resent any award ceremony that has an 85-year-old woman of color reminding us that she is a living legend.

The nominees were impressively diverse, too — as Ariana DeBose noted in the press room after she won her supporting actress prize for “West Side Story.” As mentioned, the BAFTAs often appear to be second-guessing the Oscars, so it was promising that it had an entirely different set of best actress nominations, and only two overlaps in the best actor category — Benedict Cumberbatch and the evening’s winner, Will Smith. And the number of nominees from ethnic minorities and less privileged backgrounds became more striking as the evening went on.

Just before DeBose’s win, Lashana Lynch won the EE Rising Star Award. Emilia Jones then sang a song from “CODA,” with sign language interpreters on either side of her (one speaking in American Sign Language, one in British Sign Language). Ryusuke Hamaguchi gave a speech in Japanese when he won his award for best film not in the English language. Troy Kotsur, a surprise winner for best supporting actor, gave his speech in American Sign Language (and joked about being the next James Bond). Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, calling himself “a drummer from a rap band,” accepted the documentary prize for “Summer of Soul.” And Jane Campion won best director — one of the three female directors on the shortlist.

The initial applause for Majumdar’s inclusivity campaign seemed merited. This was far less of a pale-male-and-stale BAFTAs than could have been imagined just a few years ago, and several prize-winners talked simply and movingly about how meaningful the moment was. The best short film winner was “The Black Cop,” a documentary about Gamal Turawa, a gay black Metropolitan police officer. On stage he said, “I have a right to be here, I have a right to be heard.” At the press conference afterward, he added, through tears, “In 2002, I was standing at a train station thinking about committing suicide. Now I know why I didn’t.”

Balancing the sense that the BAFTAs might actually serve an inspiring social function, however, was a lack of self-importance. Glamorous frocks notwithstanding, this was a relatively low-key, laidback affair. Rebel Wilson was never a side-splitting or groundbreaking host, but her creaky puns and risqué gags helped to give the evening the atmosphere of a cheerful Christmas party thrown by a friendly small business. This was BAFTA’s 75th anniversary, and so many of us were afraid of a long, pompous interpretative dance number. Instead we got Wilson unveiling a cake in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch’s face, and Cumberbatch stuffing a candle into the sponge-and-icing recreation of his own eye. Wilson also made one of the very few references to Ukraine, when she declared that in both American and British Sign Language, the sign for Putin was a raised middle finger.

The unprecedented number of absentees wasn’t a bad thing, either. Seven winners didn’t turn up, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Will Smith, Jane Campion, and Hans Zimmer. Even the BAFTA President, Prince William, delivered his encouraging message via video from some place or other. But this helped to keep things pacey and casual. And, anyway, if numerous big names couldn’t make it to London, it was their loss. Sunday’s BAFTA ceremony was a pleasure, in its mild-mannered way, because it wasn’t claiming to be anything more important than it was, but it felt surprisingly important.

It also had a secret weapon. If you want to make your awards seem worthwhile, keep your camera trained on Rachel Zegler. She looked so rapturously, radiantly happy about every decision that it would have been difficult to be cynical about them.

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